The Forge of God by Greg Bear (1987) 326 p.
In the middle of the Australian desert, a mountain has appeared where there was no mountain before. Silvery robotic aliens emerge, promising to usher humanity into a new era of technological development, of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, in Death Valley in California, a similar mountain has appeared – but emerging from this one (and quickly kept under wraps by the US government) is a frail, dying, biological alien, which informs its captives in perfect English that “there is bad news.”
The first third of The Forge of God is probably the most gripping sci-fi mystery I’ve read since Christopher Priest’s Inverted World. The government’s interrogation of the Death Valley alien, termed “the Guest,” is wonderfully ominous and provides tantalising glimpses at what is to come; the alien’s own limitations in the English language are both believable and serve to obscure precisely what it is that’s about to happen to the Earth. Without giving too much away, the Guest is an effectively powerless agent which is merely here to warn us, setting the scene for some kind of alien invasion or destruction.
The title is more than just a metaphor; religion plays a significant part in The Forge of God. The fictional US President, Crockerman, is a devout Christian who is visibly shaken by what the Guest has to say, and interprets it theologically. He eventually comes to believe that he has encountered an angel proclaiming Judgement Day, and that all that is left for the people of Earth to do is pray. Other sci-fi writers might have made Crockerman a scornful caricature, but Bear presents him reasonably and realistically – he is neither stupid nor crazy, and faced with the information he has, and the genuine faith he has, I found his reaction to be eminently believable. (Bear himself is apparently a deist, which goes some way to explaining this.)
It’s a shame, therefore, that Crockerman’s action or lack thereof ultimately has little value, along with most of the rest of the characters in the book. The second two thirds fail to capture the cracking pace of the first, and towards the end the book begins to drag as the characters are faced with their apparent inevitable doom.
This is largely a problem of character. A hard sci-fi writer like Bear is fantastic at coming up with intriguing concepts and putting them inside an enjoyable pot-boiler – the kind of book you can happily burn through on an airplane or beach holiday – but not so great at the slower, more introspective stuff demanded of somebody who has chosen to write about humans living out their last days. He has, for example, that annoying belief common in many sci-fi and thriller writers that characterisation involves giving a physical description of somebody. Every time a character is introduced, no matter how irrelevant, you can bet Bear’s going to tell us how old they are, what colour their hair is and what they’re wearing. The entire first page is actually a rundown of the main character’s physical description. And, typical of writers who do this, all his characters are cardboard cut-outs; mostly white, middle-aged scientists or political advisors with names like Arthur or Edward or Harry. I wish Bear had stuck to his strengths, ignored all the attempted end-of-days sadness, and kept us on the roller-coaster ride the first third of the book is.
One more minor complaint: given that the only scene in the book set outside the US takes place in Australia (and a fairly important scene at that), it wouldn’t have killed Bear to do some light research. I realise Google didn’t exist in the 1980s, but a cursory glance at an encyclopaedia could have told him that Melbourne is not the capital, the Australian Army does not use the “royal” prefix, there are in fact real TV networks and scientific organisations you can use rather than made-up ones, etc. It’s a small thing, and one that non-Australian readers wouldn’t notice, but it annoyed me a lot given that Bear is obviously not averse to a bit of factual reading.
Overall, the The Forge of God begins extremely well – reminiscent of Michael Crichton at his best – but unfortunately loses paces halfway through and ends in mediocrity. It’s nevertheless worth reading for hard sci-fi fans for the first third alone, and despite being less interesting towards the end, it’s still a quick and easy read. There is a sequel, Anvil of the Stars, which I may check out.